Paul Routledge

The unwritten story behind Robin Cook's defenestration from a high window in the Foreign Office lies in Washington. Quite simply, the Americans do not like Cook, and they told Blair to get rid of him. All those years of truckling up to Madeleine Albright and playing a subservient role in the US war against Yugoslavia counted for nothing with the Bush regime. George Dubbya cannot cope with a bloody pinko who once supported CND, and Tony caved in to his demand. This is the surest sign so far that Britain will fall into step on Son of Star Wars, and help hassle the rest of Europe to follow suit.

Much has been made of the disgruntlement among ministers about their "voluntary" pay restraint, imposed by Gordon Brown in 1997. But the strongest pressure for whacking great pay rises around the Cabinet table came from Cherie Blair, who believes hubbie is underpaid. When pay restraint started, the Prime Minister originally wanted to allow ministers to accept the money on an individual basis, but Ir'n Broon objected. In front of witnesses, Blair told his Chancellor: "Well, you can tell Cherie." He dare not. The First Lady is also said to be cross about the precipitate sale of the family home in Islington, north London. It raised £650,000 four years ago, but is now worth well over a million.

As the Portillistas move into frantic mode, a campaign is getting discreetly under way to draft a traditional toff for the Tory leadership. Step forward Michael Ancram, currently the party chairman and easily the nicest chap in Central Office. Traditional Conservatives reckon he would soothe and bind the party while a serious, long-term contender emerges. Phonus balonus. MPs are in too savage a mood to cope with decency. But my Central Office snout says that Ann Widdecombe will definitely not stand.

The entire Parliamentary Labour Party waited breathlessly for a telephone call from Tony Blair on the Sunday after the election. So the Tory MP Nigel Evans was puzzled to receive a bleeper message: "Ring Downing Street immediately. Urgent." Intrigued by the prospect of office in a Labour government, he did so, and was put through to the police, who told him his London flat had flooded.

Benson & Hedges boast a long history of serving the tobacco needs of the Commons. But not for much longer. Their special House of Commons cigarettes are being phased out. The Palace of Westminster's cheapskate authorities have cut the price of a packet of 20 by 30p to £4, but they are still not selling. The decision to drop brand-name fags is part of a much wider review of parliament's smoking policy, which will almost certainly ban smoking for anybody standing at one of the many bars. Perhaps the MPs' Smoking Room will be renamed the Drinking Room, which is what it is.

From Blackfriars Station, blinking in the sunlight, emerges the freshly ennobled Robin Corbett, ex-chairman of the home affairs select committee. He is en route to the College of Heralds to choose a title, and says: "Bugger Erdington" (his former Birmingham constituency). Instead, he is to be Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, a council estate on his patch that pulled itself up by its bootstraps - oh, and many millions of pounds from a Tory housing action trust.

Sick of being penned in like sheep, hacks on the Tony Blair campaign tour began baa-baaing loudly. On the plane back to Sedgefield on election night, two Millbank martinets, Jo Gibbon and Julie Crowley, dressed up as shepherdesses. I know Tory MPs who would pay good money for girls to do that. On a more serious note, journalists briefed by Alastair Campbell about what the PM would say in his "spine" speeches found that Blair ignored the text. That's because he didn't want to wear his specs. He can't read without them, and he's too vain to wear them regularly.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Mirror

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.